July 23, 2009 2:29 PM
In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and the United States' subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Bin Laden's popularity ratings soared in the Muslim world. In part, that was a reflection of rising disapproval of U.S. foreign policy in the region. At the same time, it was a reaction to the muscular rhetoric favored during the Bush administration about a global war on terror.
But the findings of the latest Pew study of global attitudes toward the U.S. suggest that Bin Laden increasingly has a public relations problem appealing beyond his base.
Public opinion polls are famously fickle but deep in his cave somewhere along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Bin Laden would be hard-pressed to put a positive spin on his disappearing support. In fact, the only areas surveyed where confidence in Bin Laden remained high were Nigeria (54%) and the Palestinian territories (52%.) Everywhere else - Indonesia, Pakistan, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt - Bin Laden's numbers failed to get any higher than 28% (Jordan). Even among the Palestinians, where the al Qaeda leader as recently as 2003 received a 72% rating, there was a sharp decline to 52%.
Bin Laden's worst showing was in Turkey, where just 2% expressed support.
Along with declining support for suicide bombings, Bin Laden's hope for Islamist revolution in the region is not resonating with the majority of Muslims living in the region. To wit:
"The rise of Islamic extremism is a major concern in nations with substantial Muslim populations. Among the eight countries where the question was asked, majorities in seven say they are very or somewhat worried about the rise of Islamic extremism around the world."
Much has been made of the new tone voiced by the Obama administration in foreign policy - officials no longer refer to a "war" on terror - as well as the president's Cairo speech. The evidence, however, is thin on that latter point. The Pew polling took place just before and after the speech and the impact it had on views of the U.S. or Mr. Obama remains unknown, according to the report.
What is clear, however, is that putting a new face on U.S. foreign policy has made it more palatable to overseas listeners - even when there still is no major difference with the policy of the previous eight years. Here's how Pew put it:
"More generally, analysis of the survey finds that views of the U.S. are being driven much more by personal confidence in Obama than by opinions about his specific policies. That is, opinions about Obama personally are more associated with views of the U.S. than are judgments of his policies that were tested in the poll."
The only possible piece of good news in the report for Bin Laden is that the U.S.'s improved favorability ratings have done little to erase the fear of the world's remaining superpower. In six of the seven majority Muslim nations polled, there remains widespread anxiety that the U.S. could pose a military threat in the future.